Over the weekend, the Iranian regime publicized a missile strike against purported ISIS targets in eastern Syria. It claimed that the attack was a response to the twin terror attacks in Tehran at the Parliament building and the shrine of the founder of the regime.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units launched mid-range ground-to-ground missiles from western Iran into the Deir al Zour region of eastern Syria, killing a “large number” of terrorists and destroying their equipment and weapons, Reuters reported, and added that the missiles targeted the “headquarters and gathering centers of Takfiri terrorists supporting and building car bombs.”
However, Reuters could not independently verify the report.
If the report is true, publicizing the attack would be one of the few times the Iranian regime has acknowledged a direct action against ISIS military units in the Syrian conflict. In the past, Iran’s military actions have deliberately targeted non-ISIS targets.
Analysts and news organizations note that Iran’s forces and Shiite militias backed by Iran have often fought rebel forces trying to overthrow the Assad regime and haven’t gone after ISIS groups.
A recent documentary by National Geographic, which examined ISIS’s rise to power, noted the Iranian regime’s efforts to avoid fighting ISIS in favor of preserving Assad’s grip on power.
Once ISIS had diverted the attention of the rest of the world from the bloody Syrian conflict, Iran prepared to engage ISIS, according to Laura Carnahan in her article for Iran Lobby. She writes, “As Shiite militias, working in concert with Iranian troops, begin to take over key border crossings between Iraq, Syria and Iran, the Iranian regime’s long-range plans of building a Shiite-controlled sphere of influence around it are beginning to take shape,” and adds, “The growing influence of these Shiite militias aiming to stay permanently in Syria are increasingly being scrutinized by news media and what their impact may mean for future instability in the region.”
The Guardian’s Martin Chulov wrote about the Syrian town of Ba’aj which was formerly held by ISIS, but was recently liberated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias who don’t appear to be leaving. “Ba’aj is now a foundation point of an Iranian plan to secure ground routes across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon, cementing its influence over lands its proxies have conquered,” Chulov wrote.
“From Mosul to Ba’aj, thank you Suleimani,” read one message painted on the town roundabout in tribute to the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who helped lead units of the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) as they moved through Ba’aj to the Syrian border. Flags of various Shia units were planted.
“We are not leaving Ba’aj,” said one senior PMF member. “This will be our main base in the area.”
Semi-trailers carrying blast walls trundled through the town toward a government building in the center that afternoon.
The rapid change in Bajaj, from a haven for Isis leaders to a focal point for Iranian regime’s efforts, is taking place even before hundreds of booby-trapped homes have been cleared.
“Since then, Iranian backed forces, led by Suleimani, have massed on both sides of the border near the Damascus-Baghdad highway, leading to at least three clashes with US forces and their Syrian opposition proxies near the town of Tanf,” writes Carnahan.
Deflecting attention away from its regional ambitions, Iran points blames the U.S., Saudi Arabia and ISIS for regional instability. Ali Khamenei aimed his ire at the Trump administration as the U.S. Senate passed legislation implementing new economic sanctions on the Iranian regime for its support of terrorism and its ballistic missile program.
After Trump went on an official visit last month to Saudi Arabia, Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials have escalated their criticism of the United States in recent weeks, according to Reuters.
Trump pointed at Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups, during that visit. He also criticized the nuclear deal that led to the lifting of most sanctions against Iran, in return for curbs on its nuclear program. He said that Washington would review the deal, but has not yet scrapped it.
Khamenei said in his speech on Sunday that any efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic would not succeed. According to Fars News, Khamenei said, “In the past 38 years, when has there been a time when you haven’t wanted to change the Islamic system? Your head has hit the rock each time and always will.”
Khamenei’s attacks also hint at renewed efforts to target Iranian dissidents using the excuse of the ISIS attacks, Carnahan writes. The largest gathering of Iranian dissident groups is scheduled to hold its annual Freedom Rally in Paris on July 1st, which should prove to be a powerful show of support for the ongoing dissident movement.